Damsel, by Elana K. Arnold, is a wonderful example of an exceedingly rare phenomenon: an allegory that actually works.
In this book, Arnold explores one of the oldest themes in literature: oppression, specifically oppression against women, but in a refreshingly new approach. The book opens with a classic scene from Western myth: the hero, a highborn man, heads out alone to kill a dragon and rescue the damsel held captive by the monster. Emory, our dragon slayer, manages to defeat the dragon—but where is the captive, the “damsel”?
The perspective then shifts abruptly to Ama, a woman who first comes awake in Emory’s arms, with no memory of her previous life. Emory assures her that he has rescued her from the dragon, and they will now be married in accordance with ancient tradition. Having nothing else to go on, Ama accepts this, but she isn’t happy about it. There are too many questions: who is Ama? How did Emory rescue her, and why won’t he give her any details? And, if Emory really is a hero, why does he increasingly behave like a villain?
Damsel’s effectiveness as an allegory for oppression comes out in its characters and their interactions. Emory claims to be a hero, but in actuality he is a bully: a bully who embodies the many ways women—and men, too—are abused in a patriarchal society. Emory illustrates patriarchal control of women and their bodies through his actions: kidnapping Ama (violence), sexually harassing her (sex as a weapon), telling her how lucky she is that he is a gentle man who loves her, among other lies (gaslighting), humiliating her in public under the guise of a “game” (violence disguised as “fun”) and, first and lastly, trying to tear her away from her essential self and make her his possession. Pawlin, the royal falconer, also illustrates the many forms that violence can take, from sewing his bird Isolde’s eyes shut and completely and utterly ignoring Ama’s desperation, and even her words, when she begs him to tell her where her lynx Sorrow is (silencing women).
These events, of course, are not entirely realistic: after all, would a falconer really be allowed to ignore and talk over a princess when she’s asking him a direct question, even in a patriarchal society? Also, after Arnold specifically states that Emory knows nothing about dragons and isn’t interested in learning, how does he suddenly become this dragon expert at the end of the book, knowing everything about their origins and lifestyle? But this isn’t a realistic story, nor is it supposed to be: it’s an allegory, a large, complex symbol that explores a theme or issue. The setting itself—the kingdom of Harding—is also another, vital piece of the allegorical puzzle. Harding is an oppressive place; even its name conjures images of hardness, harshness. It is surrounded by a wall of eyes: there is no privacy here, no place where anyone, especially a woman, can be unobserved. Its society is set up to favor men over women: men have an absolute right to sexually exploit women, for example, and women are constantly compared to pets. Ama learns firsthand that women can’t even go out alone: doing so results in a near-rape experience that she is powerless to avert. Only Emory—her owner—can protect her. This encapsulates another aspect of patriarchy: women are systematically disempowered and forced to rely on men for protection.
At the same time, men are turned into brutes, as society tacitly encourages their worst instincts. While I feel Arnold could have played this up more, she does show the appalling damage that a patriarchal society does to its male members as well as its females. Emory may have been capable of so much more than what he is—he is, after all, just as magical as Ama. But his society has turned him evil, encouraging feelings of narcissism, selfishness and cruelty over empathy, compassion and humanity. He is too comfortable in his privileged position to change or see anything from another’s point of view, and so he eventually dooms himself.
If men are often the victims of patriarchal oppression, then women are often its agents. This is illustrated in Ama’s interactions with other female characters: Tillie, Ama’s maid, obeys Emory before she obeys Ama, and Tillie’s mutilated aunt is a symbol of miserable resignation to one’s fate. The queen mother parrots the oppressive lies she’s been fed all of her remembered life: “Here is the truth…It is a king’s world in which we find ourselves, Ama. A woman, you see, is a vessel.” (Arnold, 2018, p. 176). She defends the tradition that has crushed her, and will crush Ama, on the basis that it’s always been this way. Her only response to Ama’s revolutionary statement that she desires is a bored “Do you?…How interesting.” (Arnold, 2018, p. 293). Tillie, her aunt and the queen mother are both victims and enforcers of their culture’s crushing social mores.
The only way to break the cycle is to do the one thing that the patriarchy is determined no one should do: get in touch with one’s true, essential self. Or, as the queen mother puts it: “Remember.” (Arnold, 2018, p. 293). Remember who you are. Reclaim your true nature. Recall that you are not a pet.
This isn’t easy. Ama must think her way through a labyrinth of lies and social obstacles before she can reclaim her true self, from Emory’s so-called love to her inability to even go outside alone. Everything and everyone is telling her that she is Emory’s pet, the slave of tradition—everything except Sorrow, her lynx companion. Emory instinctively fears and disapproves of Sorrow, as well he should: the lynx is Ama’s true self, the symbol of her dignity, her true nature. Even Sorrow’s name embodies Ama’s true feelings, the emotions she is not allowed to feel. Ama struggles to protect Sorrow, even as Emory tries to take her away. Ama even almost capitulates to society’s patriarchal demands by beating Sorrow: symbolically destroying her true self. But she manages not to kill her own soul. Indeed, she sets Sorrow free, renaming her Fury: another emotion she is forbidden to feel, but that is essential to winning freedom.
If rage—the realization that you are a prisoner—is the first step toward freedom, then desire—working toward escape—is the next. Ama must break another ironclad rule: she must create. In Harding, artwork and craftsmanship are reserved for men. Ama must employ subterfuge to learn glassmaking, and then she gets into trouble for damaging Emory’s “property” when she injures her hand. According to Emory, her body belongs to him, not her. But Ama must fight through his lies, to realize that her body belongs to her, to employ her own agency—to create. Desire, which women are forbidden from feeling, is the only path out of prison.
That being said, one thing I didn’t like about this book was Arnold’s treatment of sexual desire. Ama is both a virgin and asexual, and this is portrayed as an essential combination for her escape. Once a damsel has sex with her king, it’s too late for her: she’ll be his slave forever. Likewise, other women in the book who have sex—and, even worse, enjoy it—are portrayed as agents of oppression, or hapless fools, or both. The same goes for motherhood. Arnold’s allegory basically says that women must give up sex, sexual love and children if they want freedom—and while I appreciate that this is a metaphor for remaining true to oneself rather than unjust social attitudes, it’s still troubling to read.
Still, Ama must embrace another form of desire: the desire for freedom, the desire to create. The desire for knowledge of her true self. She achieves that knowledge through her art, the skills of creation she has taken from men. And the truth is this: she is not the damsel. She is the dragon. The dragon that Emory defeated but couldn’t kill. It remains within her. And unleashing her dragon-self, through Emory’s death, is ultimately what allows her to regain freedom and leave Harding forever. And so the allegory shifts, from sorrow to fury, from helplessness to creation, and from oppression to freedom. Only through self-knowledge is freedom achieved.
Overall, I applaud and recommend Damsel. Not only is it exquisitely crafted, but it contains some very necessary and sadly relevant messages: oppression is alive and well, but it’s worth it to fight back. Slavery, whether of the mind, body or spirit, can be defeated.
Arnold, E. K. (2018). Damsel. HarperCollins Publisher: New York, NY.